Day: February 9, 2019



LONDON — The British government has cancelled a contract to ship goods to the country after it leaves the European Union with a company that turned out to have no boats and no experience running a ferry service.

Authorities had been criticized for the 13.8 million pound ($18 million) deal with Seaborne Freight, part of plans to keep trade flowing if Britain leaves the EU without a divorce deal.

The U.K. Department for Transport said Saturday that it had ended the contract because an Irish firm that was backing Seaborne Freight, Arklow Shipping, had withdrawn its support.

The department said no taxpayer money had been transferred to the company. It said the government was “in advanced talks with a number of companies to secure additional freight capacity” if there is a no-deal Brexit.

Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29 but British lawmakers have not yet agreed upon a divorce deal outlining departure rules and future trade terms. A withdrawal agreement between British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative government and the EU was rejected last month by Britain’s Parliament, and EU officials are resisting U.K. attempts to renegotiate it.

British businesses fear a no-deal Brexit will cause gridlock at ports by ripping up the trade rulebook and imposing tariffs, customs checks and other barriers between the U.K. and the EU, its biggest trading partner.

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s chief Brexit official, said this week that a no-deal Brexit would be “a disaster on both sides of the Channel.” The 27 other EU nations, as well as Britain, have started hiring more customs officials and taking other steps to protect themselves against the worst effects of Brexit.

Seaborne had been contracted to provide services between Ramsgate in southeast England and the Belgian port of Ostend to ease pressure on the busiest cross-Channel route between Dover, England, and Calais, France.

Criticism of the deal increased when it was discovered that part of Seaborne’s website appeared to have been copied from a food delivery firm.

U.K. opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said May’s Conservative government claimed to have “‘looked very carefully’ at Seaborne Freight before giving the company the contract, but apparently not carefully enough to notice that it didn’t have any ships.”

Labour transport spokesman Andy McDonald accused Transport Secretary Chris Grayling of “heaping humiliation after humiliation on our country” and said he should resign. Grayling has also been in charge as British commuters have howled about deficiencies in the country’s train services.

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UK scraps Brexit ferry deal with firm that has no ships

LONDON — The British government has cancelled a contract to ship goods to the country after Brexit with a company that turned out to have no boats and no experience running a ferry service.

Authorities had been criticized for the 13.8 million pound ($18 million) deal with Seaborne Freight, part of plans to keep trade flowing if Britain leaves the European Union without a divorce deal.

The Department for Transport said Saturday that it had ended the contract because an Irish firm that was backing Seaborne Freight had withdrawn its support.

Britain is due to leave the European Union on March 29. U.K. businesses fear a “no-deal” Brexit will cause economic chaos by ripping up the trade rulebook and imposing tariffs, customs checks and other barriers between the U.K. and the EU.

The Associated Press

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Quebec Mosque Shooter Alexandre Bissonnette Sentenced To Life, 40 Years Without Parole

QUEBEC — Alexandre Bissonnette was driven by “racism and hatred” when he stormed into a Quebec City mosque and gunned down six worshippers in 2017, a judge said Friday as he sentenced him to 40 years in prison without possibility of parole.

Quebec Superior Court Justice Francois Huot began by saying the day of the murders “will forever be written in blood in the history of this city, this province, this country.”

But he rejected the Crown’s request for six consecutive life sentences, which would have prevented Bissonnette from seeking parole for 150 years and guaranteed that he end his life behind bars.

Rewrote Charter section

Huot concluded a sentence of 50 years or more would constitute cruel and unusual punishment, and he declared that the section of the Criminal Code allowing consecutive life sentences violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

While he did not strike down the section, he rewrote it to give himself the discretion to deliver consecutive life sentences that are not in blocks of 25 years, as had been the case. (First-degree murder carries an automatic sentence of life in prison with no possibility of parole before 25 years.)

Bissonnette, 29, pleaded guilty last March to six counts of first-degree murder and six of attempted murder after he walked into the mosque at the Islamic Cultural Centre during evening prayers on Jan. 29, 2017 and opened fire. The murder victims were Mamadou Tanou Barry, 42; Abdelkrim Hassane, 41; Khaled Belkacemi, 60; Aboubaker Thabti, 44; Azzeddine Soufiane, 57; and Ibrahima Barry, 39.

‘We were very upset’: victim

Aymen Derbali, who was shot seven times and left paralyzed from the waist down, told reporters he did not understand why the judge dwelled on Bissonnette’s life expectancy and the possibility that he would die in prison.

“We were astonished, we were very upset after this sentence,” Derbali said.

Aymen Derbali, a victim in the Quebec mosque attack, talks to the press in the Quebec City Courthouse following the sentencing of perpetrator Alexandre Bissonnette.

Boufeldja Benabdallah, president of the mosque that was attacked, said community members were “stunned” by the decision and felt the judge was more concerned about the dignity of the killer than that of the victims and their families.

“We want to appeal to Quebec society to understand us, to understand the pain we are in today, the disappointment we feel,” he said.

Boufeldja Benabdallah, Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre president, talks to the press in the Quebec City courthouse following the sentencing of perpetrator Alexandre Bissonnette.

The Crown said it will take the time to study the 246-page decision before deciding whether to appeal. The defence also said it needs time to study the ruling.

As the judge read a detailed account of the shooter’s actions, several people in the Quebec City courtroom wept. Two women left in tears as Huot described how Bissonnette approached Soufiane as he lay on the ground, already wounded, and fired another bullet into his head.

The judge said that in the years leading up to the shooting Bissonnette increasingly drank alcohol and experienced anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.

Huot noted that witnesses at his sentencing hearing testified that he had been severely bullied in school and had a documented history of mental health problems. He also lacked empathy, the judge said, quoting Bissonnette’s statement after the shootings: “I regret not having killed more people.”

Alexandre Bissonnette is seen in a Facebook posting.

The defence had argued Bissonnette should be eligible for parole after 25 years, but Huot said that would be too little.

The Criminal Code was amended in 2011 to allow a judge to impose consecutive sentences in cases of multiple murder, but it was clear as Huot spent nearly six hours reading the decision that he was wrestling with the constitutionality of the provision.

In the end he sentenced Bissonnette to concurrent life sentences for five murders, and on the sixth added 15 years to bring the total to 40.

The longest prison sentence in Canada to date is 75 years without parole, which has been given to at least five triple killers since the law was changed to allow consecutive sentences.

Aggravating factors

All 250 seats in the courtroom were filled, with a section reserved for members of Quebec City’s Muslim community. Bissonnette’s parents were also present.

Among the aggravating factors Huot cited in determining the sentence were the “well-planned and highly premeditated” nature of the crime, the number of victims, the fact they were in a house of worship and the hatred of Islam that motivated Bissonnette.

On the other hand, the judge said, Bissonnette had no previous criminal record, he pleaded guilty and he expressed remorse. He noted that Bissonnette’s mental health problems contributed to his actions and judged the danger of him reoffending as “moderate” at most.

Crown prosecutors Thomas Jacques (L) and Francois Godin (R) walk before talking to the press in the Quebec City courthouse following the sentencing of perpetrator Alexandre Bissonnette.

A decision on sentencing was originally expected in October, but Huot pushed that back, saying he needed more information on some legal questions, including the constitutionality of consecutive life sentences.

Witnesses at the time described the former Universite Laval student entering the Islamic Cultural Centre and calmly opening fire on the crowd gathered for evening prayers.

Ahmed Cheddadi, who was in the mosque during the Quebec mosque attack, talks to the press on Friday.

In addition to the men killed, five others were struck by bullets. The sixth attempted murder charge related to others who were nearby in the mosque.

The crime prompted an outpouring of horror and sympathy that reached across Canada and around the world, prompting a wider conversation on Islamophobia, intolerance, and the need for better understanding between communities. During a sentencing hearing last June, the conversation began to shift to the appropriate way to punish a crime that was, in many ways, unprecedented in Canadian history.

Pleaded guilty

In pleading guilty, Bissonnette expressed shame and remorse for his actions but offered no clear explanation of why he did it. In a statement read in court, he said he was “neither a terrorist nor an Islamophobe,” but rather someone who was “overcome by fear, by negative thoughts and a sort of horrible kind of despair.”

But in a police interrogation played in court during sentencing, Bissonnette told investigators he wanted to protect his family from terrorists when he committed the killings. He referred to numerous attacks in Europe as well as the 2014 shooting in Ottawa outside Parliament and said he “lost it” after learning Canada was preparing to take in more refugees.

Crown prosecutor Thomas Jacques talks to the press.

Prosecutor Thomas Jacques had argued that a 150-year sentence would be proportionate to the “carnage” inflicted on the city’s Muslim community and the trauma suffered by the rest of the country. He painted Bissonnette as a calculated killer who was “looking for glory” and targeted a group of people based on bigotry and hatred.

But Bissonnette’s lawyer, Charles-Olivier Gosselin, portrayed his client as an anxious and fragile man who deeply regrets his actions and is not beyond rehabilitation. He argued a 150-year term would be the equivalent of a death sentence.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that Alexandre Bissonnette had already been sentenced to life in prison, with no chance of parole for 35 years. This was a Reuters error as the judge was still reading his judgment.

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NEW YORK — The National Enquirer’s alleged attempts to blackmail Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos with intimate photos could get the tabloid’s parent company and top editors in deep legal trouble and reopen them to prosecution for paying hush money to a Playboy model who claimed to have had an affair with Donald Trump.

Federal prosecutors are looking at whether the Enquirer’s feud with Bezos violated a co-operation and non-prosecution agreement that recently spared the tabloid from charges in the hush-money case, two people familiar with the matter told The Associated Press on Friday.

This image shows the front page of the Jan. 28, 2019, edition of the National Enquirer featuring a story about Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos’ divorce. (National Enquirer via AP)

The clash between the world’s richest man and American’s most aggressive supermarket tabloid spilled into public view late Thursday when Bezos accused it of threatening to print photos of Bezos and the woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair.

He said the Enquirer demanded that he stop investigating how the publication recently obtained private messages he and his girlfriend had exchanged.

Enquirer owner American Media Inc. said Friday that its board of directors ordered a prompt and thorough investigation and will take “whatever appropriate action is necessary.” Earlier in the day, the company said it “acted lawfully” while reporting the story and engaged in “good-faith negotiations” with Bezos.

In recent months, the Trump-friendly tabloid acknowledged secretly assisting Trump’s White House campaign by paying $150,000 to Playboy model Karen McDougal for the rights to her story about an alleged affair with Trump. The company then suppressed the story until after the 2016 election.

Trump’s longtime personal attorney and fixer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty last year to charges that included helping to broker that transaction.

Federal prosecutors considered the payment an illegal corporate contribution. In September, though, AMI reached an agreement with federal authorities that spared it from prosecution for campaign-finance violations.

It promised in the agreement not to break any laws. The deal also required the continuing co-operation of top AMI executives, including CEO David Pecker and Enquirer editor Dylan Howard.

Now, federal prosecutors in New York are looking at whether AMI violated those terms, the people familiar with the matter said. They were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke to AP on condition of anonymity.

A violation of the agreement could lead to criminal charges over the McDougal payments. And the resulting court proceedings could lay bare details of the gossip sheet’s cozy relationship with the president.

The Enquirer and top executives could also be subject to state and federal extortion and coercion charges and prosecution under New York City’s revenge porn law, passed last year, which bans even the threat of sharing intimate photographs, legal experts said.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan declined to comment.

Carrie Goldberg, a Brooklyn lawyer representing revenge-porn and sex-crime victims, said Bezos’ account laid out a clear case of criminal coercion.

Bezos’ allegations, detailed in a blog post, also highlight a tabloid practice known as “catch-and-kill,” in which the gossip sheets use the threat of damaging stories as leverage or to curry favour with a celebrity, Goldberg said.

The blog post included emails from an AMI attorney saying the tabloid wouldn’t post the intimate photos if the Bezos camp publicly stated that it has no evidence to suggest the Enquirer’s coverage of Bezos was politically motivated.

The Enquirer has “weaponized journalism and made it into this bartering, brokering thing where it’s like, ’If I can blackmail you with the threat – I’ll expose this unless you’ve got something better,”’ Goldberg said.

It is a federal crime to threaten to injure someone’s reputation in exchange for money or a “thing of value,” though federal courts haven’t made it clear whether a public statement, like the one demanded by AMI, could be considered something of value. Bezos said the Enquirer did not demand money.

Former New York federal prosecutor Jennifer Rodgers said prosecutors are probably weighing the pros and cons of keeping the co-operation agreement in place.

The agreement secures Pecker’s testimony in any future cases stemming from the hush-money payments, and winning a criminal case over the Bezos matter would be far from clear-cut, Rodgers said. The company could say it was relying on the advice of its counsel or even cite First Amendment protections, she said.

The Bezos camp has suggested the Enquirer’s coverage of his affair was driven by dirty politics. Trump himself has criticized Bezos on Twitter over his ownership of The Washington Post and of Amazon.

Bezos’ extramarital affair became public when the Enquirer published a Jan. 9 story about his relationship with Lauren Sanchez, a former TV anchor who is also married. Bezos then hired private investigators to find out how the tabloid got texts and photos the two exchanged.

Bezos’ personal investigators, led by his security consultant Gavin de Becker, have been focusing on Sanchez’s brother, according to a person familiar with the matter.

De Becker and his team suspect Michael Sanchez, a talent manager who touts his support of Trump and is an acquaintance of Trump allies Roger Stone and Carter Page, may have provided the information to the Enquirer, the person said. The person wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Sanchez, who is also his sister’s manager, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. In a tweet, he said de Becker “spreads fake, unhinged conservative conspiracy theories.”

Bezos detailed his blackmail allegations in an extraordinary blog post. The intimate photos at issue include a “below the belt selfie” of Bezos and several revealing photos of Sanchez, according to emails Bezos released of his exchanges with AMI.

“Of course I don’t want personal photos published, but I also won’t participate in their well-known practice of blackmail, political favours, political attacks, and corruption,” Bezos said in explaining his decision to go public. “I prefer to stand up, roll this log over, and see what crawls out.”

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Cedric Marks

Cedric Marks

CONROE, Texas — An MMA fighter facing murder charges who prompted a nine-hour manhunt when he escaped from a prison van said he had “nothing to do with” the deaths of his ex-girlfriend and her friend.

During a Thursday video call from a Texas jail, Cedric Marks told TV station KPRC2 that he did not kill Jenna Scott or her friend Michael Swearingin. The pair had been missing from their Texas home for more than a week when their bodies were found in a shallow grave in Clearview, Oklahoma, on Jan. 15.

“I can only imagine what’s going on with their family and I am so sorry for their losses, but I did not and had nothing to do with this,” Marks said.

Marks was arrested in Michigan last month on a Texas charge alleging he broke into Scott’s home on Aug 21. He somehow got free from a private prison van that was bringing him from Michigan to Texas on Sunday, the same day Texas officials issued murder warrants. Authorities recaptured him nine hours later.

But Marks, 44, said he “was not trying to escape” from the van that stopped outside a McDonald’s near Houston. “I was actually in fear and I was not going anywhere at all,” he said.

Neither police nor the company that was transporting Marks, Texas Prisoner Transportation Service, have explained how he managed to get loose while wearing leg, hand and belly restraints. Marks declined to discuss his escape with the TV station. The middleweight fighter was found hiding in trash can in a residential neighbourhood less than a mile (1.61 kilometres) from the McDonald’s.

In the interview with KPRC2, Marks also challenged the account of the woman who appears to be the primary witness against him, Maya Maxwell.

Maxwell told police that she was there when Marks allegedly killed Scott and Swearingin in a Texas house on Jan. 3, according to an affidavit Temple police filed Tuesday in Bell County District Court. She also said that she was present when their bodies were moved more than 350 miles (563 kilometres) north and buried in Oklahoma, but she did not make clear what role she or Marks played in these actions.

Maxwell is being held on a felony charge of tampering with evidence in the Bell County Jail, which does not list an attorney for her.

Marks said he believes police forced Maxwell’s statements. “I believe that they coerced her and scared her and forced her to say some things, but none of this has involved me,” he said.

Marks is being held on a more than $1.75 million bond for charges including capital murder.

He is also a person of interest in the 2009 disappearance of April Pease, the mother of one of his children, according to police in Bloomington, Minnesota. The couple had been involved in a custody dispute in Washington state when Pease, who had a drug problem, went to live in a Bloomington women’s shelter because she said she was afraid of Marks, according to court documents.

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